Here’s one thing I love about having a space for writing: I am surrounded by my books, which are filled with ideas, and that comes in handy at times like RIGHT NOW when I really feel a desperate urge to write but cannot think of a damn thing I want to say. Every spine of every volume reminds me that all writers have a moment (or year) when they get stuck. Misery loves company and these writers are good company because they made it through.
I reached over just now and picked up a slim gray book of poems by Raymond Carver called “A New Path to the Waterfall.” I bought this copy for myself in the spring of 1990. A professor of mine, on whom I had a huge crush, had loaned me his copy earlier in the year because he thought I might like it. I did. I loved it and I loved him and that’s OK to confess now because I’m 45 and it feels sweet, not embarrassing, to remember that time when he and I would talk about books and painting and the ways of the world. I was 21 and really looking to have my heart broken a few times. Just to check, I googled him and his smile still made my tired old heart go pitter pat.
One thing that drew me to this book of poems when I was 21 was the tragic story of Carver’s life. He died in 1988 from lung cancer at the age of 50. But he was supposed to have died 10 years before that. Carver tried his best to drink himself to death but managed to get clean at 40. He called the rest of his life “gravy” (and there’s a poem by that name, too). In that last best 10 years, he made a life with Tess Gallagher, a fellow writer. When they learned that he was dying, they married so they could call each other husband and wife.
Well. That rings a bell. These poems that I loved when I was a heartsick 21 year old girl mean even more to me now that I also know what it is like to promise “til Death do us part” when Death is practically a guest at the wedding.
So here is a lovely poem, written by Ray in the days between his marriage and his death. After he died, Tess gathered all these last poems and assembled “A New Path to the Waterfall.” His gifts to her; her gift to him.
From the window I see her bend to the roses
holding close to the bloom so as not to
prick her fingers. With the other hand she clips, pauses and
clips, more alone in the world
than I had known. She won’t
look up, not now. She’s alone
with roses and with something else I can only think, not
say. I know the names of those bushes
given for our late wedding: Love, Honor, Cherish—
this last the rose she holds out to me suddenly, having
entered the house between glances. I press
my nose to it, draw the sweetness in, let it cling—scent
of promise, of treasure. My hand on her wrist to bring her close,
her eyes green as river-moss. Saying it then, against
what comes: wife, while I can, while my breath, each hurried petal
can still find her.